‘He loved what he did’: Remembering Jon McMahan

by Sonja J. Keith

It’s been more than eight years since Conway firefighter and first responder Jon McMahan lost his battle with stomach cancer, but his love of family and his heartfelt commitment to helping others are still being remembered.

A painting celebrating Jon’s life was commissioned by his family and placed in the emergency department earlier this year at Conway Regional Medical Center.

“We lost a man who was very dear to Conway Regional and to the City of Conway,” said Lori Ross, corporate director of the Conway Regional Health Foundation, at the painting dedication. “During his 45 short years on this earth, Jon made a tremendous difference as he served his patients and taught many of the professionals who serve in the emergency medicine field.”

Originally from Omaha, Neb., Jon’s family moved to Searcy because of his dad’s job when he was in the seventh grade. Jon and his wife, Lana, were high school sweethearts and were married for 25 years. They have two children: Adam and Ashley. Adam and his wife, Kristin, have a son — Jude Scott McMahan — who shares the same initials as his grandfather.  

The couple lived in Searcy for a year while Jon worked for the local ambulance service. He completed paramedic school at UAMS in 1983. After living and working in Little Rock, the couple moved in 1988 to Conway.

Jon was a nationally registered paramedic for 26 years and a Conway firefighter for about 18 years, serving as the division chief of special operations. In 2008, he graduated summa cum laude from Arkansas Tech University with a bachelor of science degree in emergency administration management.

In 2001, Jon was named National Paramedic of the Year. It was the same year that he experienced weight loss and had some stomach issues, leading to a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent radiation treatment for six weeks at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

In the seven years that followed, Jon did not have any problems but continued with follow-up treatments and regular checkups, which were less frequent after he hit the five-year mark. He was overall healthy and continued working at the Conway Fire Department, earning a promotion in 2004 to district chief.

Lana said while there were no indications that the cancer had come back, the fear that it would return was always in the back of her mind. “Once he started with symptoms again, that’s immediately where my mind went,” she said.

In early fall in 2008, Jon began experiencing some stomach issues, which he attributed to the stress of selling their home with plans to build a new one. When he went in for a check-up, adenocarcinoma (stomach cancer) was discovered.

“Sure enough it was back and little did we know, it was back with a vengeance,” Lana said. “We hoped and hoped, because sometimes that’s all you have. It just spread so quickly. From the time we found out, he barely lasted a little over three months.”

Lana said Jon received treatment in Conway and starting the week after Christmas, he was in and out of the hospital. “He was just so sick,” she said “Even with the treatment it was just spreading so fast.”

Jon’s demeanor was to encourage his family to continue working and going to school. “He never thought about himself. He would say, ‘If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.’”

Lana said it was during one of the exams that seeing the doctor’s face and hearing what he had to say that the weight of her husband’s illness hit her. “I don’t guess I ever gave up but somehow I knew. In the midst of all of this hope that I had that he was going to beat it and it was going to be OK, there was a part of me that deep down knew.”

Members of Antioch Baptist Church, Lana said faith was important to Jon. “He was a born again Christian and I am so thankful for that,” she said. “We just believe we will see him again one day. I don’t know how you make it without that. That’s definitely what got us through his illness.”

Lana said Jon always put his family first and made a point to be in attendance at his children’s activities. At the end of his life, she said Jon did not have any regrets about how he spent his time. “He thought more of his family than himself,” she said. “He was a wonderful husband and father. He knew what was most important – family.”

Jon’s immediate and extended family established the Jon Scott McMahan Memorial Scholarship Fund at Conway Regional in his memory. The fund, which served as a tribute to his 27 years of service and dedication to emergency medicine, provided five scholarships with a total value of $5,675.

Lana worked with Conway gallery Art on the Green to commission Tim Jacob of Little Rock to create a painting as a tribute to Jon’s memory. “I wanted to do something big and go in a different direction,” Lana said, explaining the painting and expenses to send an ER employee at Conway Regional to a special class absorbed the remaining money in the fund.

Tim took ideas and photos from Lana to create a painting that depicts Jon walking outside Central Fire Station in Downtown Conway. It also includes little features that are reflective of Jon and his interests. For example, Jon loved the New York Yankees so Tim included a team symbol in a window.

“I thought he did a great job,” Lana said. “I love it.”

Lana said Jon’s service was recognized in several ways following his death. She said a legislative resolution in his memory was read into the official record. An excellence award at the Conway Fire Department and an Arkansas EMS award both bear his name. His number was also retired at the fire department in a special ceremony. He has also been inducted into the Arkansas EMS Hall of Fame.

While his faith and family were his top priorities, he was committed to his work in emergency medicine and firefighting. Lana said as a child Jon was intrigued by fire trucks and firefighting, which was sparked in the 1970s by the television show “Emergency!”

“His true love was the fire department. He always brought his paramedic knowledge and training to the department. It was always respected,” she said, adding that Jon was always interested learning and doing more when it came to his work.

“Jon never went to work a day in his life because he loved what he did,” Lana said, adding he modeled that approach to life for his children.

Describing Jon as kind and considerate, Lana said he was very genuine, which came across to those in his care. He was also patient and a good teacher. “Even in death, he still makes an impact. There have been so many things we have done since he died because of him,” she said. “You just never will know how many lives he saved or impacted because of all he invested in everyone’s life in everyone he met.”